Russia and U.S. Make Syria an Offer It Cannot Refuse

The Russian-American initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal may serve all the parties involved in the short term, but it’s unlikely to resolve the ongoing crisis.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Russia’s offer to Syrian Defense Minister Walid Moallem — an offer he couldn’t refuse — was drawn up over the past few days in secret talks between Russia and the United States. It is acceptable not only to Syrian President Bashar Assad but also to the American administration, which was looking for a way out of its pledge to attack Syria, pending Congressional approval.

Damascus asked Russia for guarantees that the U.S. would not attack if it removed all of its chemical weapons. Assad received those guarantees in the form of a public statement by American Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. would not attack if the chemical weapons were taken out of Syria. The details of the agreement, which includes concentrating the chemical weapons stockpile, placing it under international supervision and destroying it, are not fully known. But according to diplomatic sources, there are several ways in which the chemical weapons could be removed.

One option is transferring them to the Russian military facility in the Syrian city of Tartus and destroying them while still in the country. Another is sending an international team to oversee the elimination of the weapons from where they are currently stored. There is also a possibility of sending the stockpile of chemical weapons to a third country in Europe, or to Turkey. This plan was drawn up in full agreement with Iran, which warned Syria that it would not provide military assistance in the event of an attack, and that to prevent such a strike the embattled regime would have to immediately agree to some sort of compromise.

According to the same sources, the time frame for the inspection and the elimination of the chemical weapons is limited: Within several days a supervisory committee, that includes experts that the parties agree upon, will be formed. These experts will arrive in Syria to take an inventory of the chemical weapons, concentrate them in one place and, later, oversee their destruction. Russia is demanding that Assad become a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which obligates its signatories to refrain from using or producing chemical weapons and destroying all such weapons in its possession. It is not known whether Syria has agreed to that condition, which is mainly for show. The question that remains unanswered is what future diplomatic efforts to end the crisis will look like.

According to Arab sources and reports in the Arab and Iranian media, a plan to begin an incremental but rapid process to end Assad’s rule - supported evidently by some of the Syrian opposition - is taking shape. According to it, the presidential elections planned for March or April 2014 will be moved up to late 2013, and Assad will not be allowed to run. In exchange, he and his family will be given political asylum. The Free Syrian Army will become the national army and absorb commanders and units of the regular Syrian army, and the next president will appoint a temporary government that will write a new constitution according to the model created in post-revolution Egypt.

Syria’s agreement to abolish its chemical arsenal is the first significant and practical concession the regime has made, but only after finding itself between a rock and a hard place — namely, Russia and Iran. But that has yet to stop the fighting, and will not reduce the regime’s ability to keep on killing Syrian civilians en masse with conventional weapons. Without a diplomatic path to remove Assad from power, the war could go on indefinitely.

Moreover, it seems that this time no Western country will want to be thrown into the whirlwind of a stalled military attack that embarrassed the European countries and portrayed Obama as lacking in leadership. Paradoxically, Syria’s very agreement to destroy the chemical weapons gives it open-ended permission to continue the war, this time without fear of attack by a foreign power.

But the plan to destroy the chemical weapons and the diplomatic plan pose practical difficulties, too. For example, it is not known whether the inspectors will be able to visit every site where chemical weapons are stored or how and to what extent their movements will be restricted - an impediment foreign inspectors in Syria have encountered in the past. It is also not known whether Syria will set conditions for approving the list of inspectors and how the destruction of the chemical weapons in Syria or their transfer to facilities outside the country will be made secure.

That matter is not within the Syrian regime’s exclusive control. Various groups, including ones affiliated with Al-Qaida, control some of the road intersections and can strike at convoys or inspectors. The Free Syrian Army is also not enthusiastic about the agreement, since it had hoped that the use of chemical weapons would be the catalyst for an attack on Syria that would overthrow Assad’s regime in a military operation. Now, the Free Syrian Army is left with no chance of receiving direct military aid and without the arms it had been promised by the Western superpowers. The political stage of the plan (which has not been agreed upon yet) raises still more difficulties, mainly regarding the deep disagreements within the political opposition and between the opposition and the Free Syrian Army.

It appears that the only ones who gain from the Syrian agreement are U.S. President Barack Obama, who was saved from the attack he had almost pushed himself into, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who proved his ability to control diplomatic moves involving Syria. Iran can also be pleased from a distance, and not only because of its contribution to the agreement.

The attack on Syria was also intended as a show of force and a demonstration of the United States’ willingness to attack Iran. Iran can understand from the confusion, embarrassment and loss of international support for the attack on Syria, at least on the part of the West, that the military option is theoretical only. For Syria’s civilians, the agreement means that they had better keep fleeing the country.

UN chemical weapons inspectors in Syria. Credit: AP

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